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Beard Science(71)

By:Penny Reid

Roscoe was the first one to sniffle. The unexpected sound drew light laughter from the rest of us.

“Aw, come here.” Ashley separated from the group and folded Roscoe in her arms. She sniffled too.

“This is shitty news, Cletus,” Duane said, making us all laugh again. “When are you going to share some good news?”

Billy gave Duane a small, indulgent smile, then moved his eyes to me. “Any more secrets, Cletus?”

I paused, meeting his searching gaze, debating how to respond.

I loved my family and I missed my momma. I would miss Duane when he left. I missed the brother I never knew. Some burdens were meant to be shared, those that centered on loss and love.

But some burdens were not meant to be shared.

Eventually, I shook my head. “None that I want to share.”

And that was the truth.

I thought back to my good friends in the sheriff’s office, officers Dale and Evans and the mechanizations I’d put into place to ensure Darrell Winston would always be within my grasp. His fate was at my whim, as it should be.

I’d allowed my siblings to vote on what happened with the Wraiths, and I would respect their decision. Taking down the Wraiths was for my family.

But taking down Darrell Winston . . . well, that was for me.

No one expects an eighty-five-year-old Navy SEAL stripper. No one. And that was the beauty of George.

However, actions have consequences, and as of today—today being the day after Jethro’s bachelor party—my brothers weren’t speaking to me. Collectively, all attendees of the bachelor party had come to an implicit accord: I was the enemy.

Consequently, I decided it would be best to make myself scarce.

Jenn had spent the previous day baking Jethro and Sienna’s wedding cake. Then she’d spent the evening at Sienna’s bachelorette party. She appeared to be in good spirits when I found her early in the morning on Friday, reading a book in my momma’s library.

Jenn had been staying at the homestead in Ashley’s old room, but she told me yesterday before the parties that she was determined to move into Claire’s as soon as possible, ideally by tonight.

Setting out early, we swung by the auto shop and picked up the Ford 360 we usually used to tow car trailers. We spent the day in Knoxville picking up supplies for her new place, including a few furniture items. Claire had taken about a quarter of her things when she’d moved to Nashville over the summer, leaving large items like the kitchen table and chairs, a big sofa, and an oversized recliner. The house had just needed a bed and a bed frame, a dresser, and side tables.

An efficient shopper, Jenn had known exactly what she wanted and how much she wanted to spend. I fought the urge to clandestinely pay for her purchases. I wanted to be supportive and part of being supportive—to me—meant providing material support. But when I saw the pleasure she derived from buying her new things with her own money, I didn’t argue the point.

I couldn’t.

It made her happy.

So I learned to support her in a different way.

After dropping the furniture off at Claire’s place—now Jenn’s place—we were running ahead of schedule. Jenn suggested we go to Daisy’s Nut House for a late afternoon snack, careful not to spoil our appetites as we had the rehearsal dinner in a few hours. A piece of pie or two doughnuts at Daisy’s sounded just right.

“Can I tell you something funny?” Jenn slid onto the stool at the counter and I motioned for the server.

“How funny is it?” I asked, not yet sitting.


“Because I have to go to the bathroom a little bit and I don’t want to pee my pants.”

Jenn laughed, scrunching her face at me like I had a screw loose, and it was cute. “Go to the bathroom then, you nut. I’ll order your pie.”

“Also order doughnuts. I can’t decide which I want.”

“Fine. Doughnuts and pie.” She waved me off, moving her smile and attention to the server who’d approached to take our order.

I made quick work of my business, and turned to leave after washing my hands, but was forced to stop short. In fact, I was forced to take a step back.

“Cletus Winston.” Repo gave me a sly grin, or at least a grin he thought was sly. These days his smile was looking forced. Nevertheless, forced or not, his grin was crooked, framed by his salt and pepper beard, and the curve of his mouth reminded me a lot of Jessica James.

My attention darted between the three men who’d just invaded the men’s room. Repo, Catfish, and Dirty Dave—three of the highest ranking members of the Iron Wraiths—stood in my path, blocking the door to the bathroom.


My first thought was of Jenn, sitting on her own at the counter, and a spike of worry for her well-being had me quickly assessing my chances of fighting all three men at once.

But then reason prevailed.

Daisy’s place was extremely public. If memory served, and it always did, the diner was at least seventy-five percent full of customers. My woman was safe just so long as these guys didn’t become desperate.

“Uncle Repo,” I said cheerfully, and returned his smile, but mine was neither crooked nor sly, nor was it genuine. “I thought we were going to meet next week.”

“There’s no time like the present, Cletus. Your daddy taught me that.”

“Catfish wants retribution for what you did to his prospect’s face.” Dirty Dave’s gleefully raspy announcement had me glancing at Catfish.

The big man looked pissed.

I nodded once, a somber nod, and stroked my beard. “If we’re going to talk about this now, then so be it.”

“I don’t know if there needs to be much talking,” Repo cut in. “Just an eye for an eye, and all that. Too bad. You always did have a pretty face.”

“Sure, sure.” I nodded agreeably. “In that case, where’s Catfish’s old lady so I can manhandle her and call her a whore?”

The three men started, frowning at me and glancing at each other.

“Come again?” Catfish asked in his deep baritone, glaring at me like I’d sprouted goat horns.

“If we’re going to engage in true retribution—an eye for an eye and all that—then let’s do it right. Isaac Sylvester grabbed my woman, shook her, then called her a whore. So I knocked him out. Now,” I rubbed my hands together, “I’m ready to meet Catfish’s fist, but let’s do this right.”

Repo frowned at me, his eyes moving over my person as though searching for the truth of my claim, then turned to Catfish. “What’s all this?”

Catfish shook his head, appearing equally stunned. “Twilight won’t say what happened—”

“’Course he can’t, his jaw is wired shut.” Dirty Dave scratched his jaw, as though experiencing sympathy pains.

Catfish continued, “But Tina didn’t mention any of this.”

“Tina wouldn’t mention it because Tina only cares about Tina.” I shrugged.

Repo cast a narrowed glare over me. “You’re saying that Banana Cake girl—”

“She’s a queen, not a girl.”

He huffed impatiently. “Her majesty of bananas is your woman?”

I gave an affirmative head bob.

The three men traded stares, silently communicating with their eyeballs. This time I didn’t mind.

Catfish’s eyes cut to mine. “If that’s the case, if this is true, then I see no need for retribution. No one touches my woman and calls her a whore. Ever.”

And there it was: loyalty.

I studied the big man, surprised and impressed by his reasonableness. We might never be friends or even friendly acquaintances, but I could understand the desire to belong to something bigger, to have brothers, people who were loyal and had your back.

Suddenly, the decision my family had made, when I’d put the Iron Wraith’s fate to a vote, felt like the right one. These guys were criminals. They weren’t all evil, but they did bad things.

If they threatened me or my people, then we’d have the means to defend ourselves. If they didn’t, then the choices they made would determine the road they were on, as well as the pitfalls along the way.

Repo nodded slowly, glancing between Catfish and me.

“I guess we’ll be going.” Dirty Dave pouted, turning for the bathroom door and leaving in a huff. Clearly he’d been itching for a fight, but Dirty Dave was always itching for a fight.

In an extremely anticlimactic move, Catfish gave me one more head nod, then followed Dave out of the men’s room, leaving me to stare after the big man and the mysterious case of his vanishing murderous intentions.

Repo moved to follow, but a notion I’d held for some years made me stop him. And an idea.

“Repo, before you go . . .”

He twisted to look at me, a question written on his typically slippery features, his grip on the handle still holding the door ajar. I studied him a bit closer, noting the shape of his eyes, the lines of his nose and chin.

Based on this hunch, I said, “Jessica James is leaving next week for Italy.”

He winced. It was a subtle movement, but I was looking for it, so I caught it.

“Off to travel the world. She and Duane, they’ll be gone for a long time. They don’t know when they’re coming back.”

Repo let the door close and turned back to me, his dark eyes shuttered, and lifted his chin. “Why’re you telling me this?”